Players to watch
QB Joe Southwick, RB Jay Ajayi, WR Matt Miller, TE Gabe Linehan
The Boise State Broncos are something akin to the perpetual bridesmaids of the BCS National Championship Game. For each of his seven seasons as head coach, Chris Petersen has led ...
("What's that, Landon? What do you mean, I can't copy and paste my Boise State preview from the Las Vegas Bowl? They're the same teams, of course I can!")
As the Broncos proved last year, there is, in fact, life after Kellen Moore. Despite losing the NCAA's all-time leader in wins (Boise State amassed a 50-3 record with Moore under center), the Broncos hardly fared terribly worse under junior QB Joe Southwick, who led the Broncos to a record of 11-2 in his first season as the team's starter, including a close win over the Huskies in the Las Vegas Bowl, all thanks to his lucky (and hideous) facial hair.
With the departure of workhorse running back D.J. Harper to the NFL, Boise State has pinned its hopes on redshirt sophomore Jay Ajayi to replace Harper's considerable production (1,137 yards and 15 TDs on 4.99 yards per carry in 2012). Ajayi operated almost exclusively last year as a change-of-pace back in his first season on the field, collecting 548 yards and four scores on 82 touches. Though it remains to be seen whether or not he can operate as a feature back, he has the benefit of running behind an experienced offensive line that features three fifth-year seniors in LT Charles Leno Jr. (second-team all-conference in 2012), LG Spencer Gerke and C Matt Paradis (first-team all-conference last year). Don't be surprised to see two or three of Washington's linebackers rack up double-digit tackles in this game, as the onus will be on them to pick up the slack for a defensive line that will likely find itself thoroughly challenged.
Of course, Southwick is no slouch in the running game, either. His success on the ground comes less from exploiting defenses on designed runs, though, and more from an uncanny ability to judge when to tuck the ball and run on a broken pass play. He turned several would-be sacks at last year's bowl game into short gains, and in the process of doing so absolutely drained the morale of the Husky defense on extended drives. Washington has to hope that the return of Hau'oli Kikaha (neé Jamora) and the development of fellow ends Josh Shirley and Evan Hudson are enough to contain the Bronco quarterback, who is reported to run a 4.65-second 40-yard dash.
Through the air, Southwick has a definite favorite target in Matt Miller, a second-team all-conference selection who rang up a team-leading 90 yards on six catches against the Dawgs in December. That falls in line with his performance during the regular season, in which Miller accounted for 769 yards and five touchdowns on 66 touches; his production far outpaced Southwick's next-most prolific receiver, Kirby Moore, who chipped in 36 receptions for 368 yards in 2012. Washington's secondary will be tested early in this game by the Bronco's starting receivers, all of whom are at least 6-3 and the lightest of whom weighs 206 lbs. Don't be surprised to see UW's rangy linebackers dropping into coverage until Ajayi proves that he's the type of running back that opposing defenses must stack the box against in order to shut him down. The Broncos' rushers will be helped in this regard by an offensive line that returns two starters from a crew that allowed just nine sacks in 2012, good for sixth-best in the FBS.
Though Boise State's offensive schemes don't utilize tight ends with the same fervor that Steve Sarkisian's do, Washington would nevertheless be wise to monitor the play of Gabe Linehan. Though he collected just one catch in four games last year before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury, Linehan put forth an impressive sophomore campaign in 2011, during which he accounted for 252 yards and five scores on just 23 receptions. Boise State will likely throw the ball whenever possible to take the heat off of Ajayi as he acclimates to his new role as featured running back, and it figures that Southwick would target his 6-4, 238 lb. teammate in hopes of accomplishing that goal.
A quick note: You may have noticed that I've changed the format of these previews from that of last year to focus less on individual position groups, and make it more of a free-flowing conversation about the team's strengths and weaknesses. Love it? Hate it? Let me know in the comments and on Twitter!